I ask participants to make their own ground rules when I facilitate a meeting or training session. But I always ask their permission to add one ground rule to the list: Everyone must say what they really think, as long as it’s relevant to the discussion and respectful of the folks in the room.
There are so many reasons why people often don’t speak up when they have a different perspective. They’re afraid of looking foolish, or of being wrong. They want to avoid confrontation or the appearance of quarrelsomeness, or they think they might hurt someone’s feelings. They don’t believe it will do any good to speak up when they have a different perspective on the issue because they’ve been dismissed or ridiculed before. Or perhaps, worst of all, they just don’t care enough about the team, the issue or the project to put forth the effort of expressing themselves.
The consequences can be severe, however. A team that doesn’t say what they really think lacks creativity and cuts its own potential short. They engage in “group think,” which rarely gets us anywhere in terms of innovative solutions to problems and new ways of approaching things. And they often lack commitment to an agreed upon course of action; everyone nods and says, “yes, that’s a great idea, that’s what we’ll do” and then they walk out of the room and complain to each other that it’s actually a stupid idea. Nothing gets done as a result. Action plans collect dust and the organization keeps on doing what it’s always done. This is the kiss of death for teams and organizations.
When I work with a team in which everyone appears to agree on everything all the time, I tell them up front that I’m concerned about that. Often this manufactured sense of agreement is something they’ve carefully cultivated, believing that it makes them a stronger team, so my message is not a welcome one. I tell them the story about the helicopter crash: Years ago, in an organization I work with frequently, a helicopter was landing in a clearing in order to drop off some employees at a research camp. Later on during the depositions, some of the folks who were on the ground said, “I saw that the rotors were too close to the trees, but I didn’t say anything.” Why not? Because they didn’t think they had the right to say anything, not being helicopter operations experts. They were afraid of looking foolish. And the result was that everyone died.